Seizure dogs are specially-trained service dogs that assist people who have seizures. Just as service dogs can be trained to assist blind or wheelchair-bound persons, some can be trained to respond to seizures. Seizure dogs are trained to assist their handlers before, during, and after a seizure. These intelligent working dogs love their jobs and it shows. Not just any dog is eligible to become a seizure dog, and not all who go through training will make the cut.
What is a Seizure Dog?
Seizure dogs are sometimes called seizure alert dogs, seizure assistance dogs, seizure detection dogs, or seizure response dogs. Not all of these are exactly the same.
Seizure alert or detection dogs can sense a seizure coming on before it begins. This is likely due to the subtle changes that occur in the pre-ictal phase (the period before the seizure). The dog is trained to display behavior that tells the handler a seizure is coming, such as staring, pawing, or nosing at the handler. This enables the handler to get to safety before the seizure begins. Seizure alert or detection dogs can be trained to act as seizure response dogs as well. When also trained to respond to seizures, they are often called seizure assistance dogs or simply seizure dogs.
Seizure response dogs are not always seizure alert or detection dogs. Seizure alert dogs are trained to respond to a seizure by assisting the handler or finding help, but they are not always able to alert the handler of an oncoming seizure. They will try to protect their handlers from injury during a seizure and find help when necessary. They are trained to stay near the handler during the seizure and protect from injury. They are also trained to alert another person if the handler needs help. A seizure response dog is often trained to perform helpful tasks like fetching items that may be needed (medications, phone, alarm or alert device), opening or closing doors, and turning lights on and off.
Seizure dogs are also trained to behave well in all places and accompany the handler obediently. They walk calmly with their handlers without pulling the leash or harness handle. When the handler is seated, the seizure dog is quietly by the handler's side.
A seizure dog is paired with a person who suffers from seizures, sometimes an epileptic, and the two become a team. In general, the seizure dog will go everywhere with the handler. In the event that a seizure begins, the dog will respond in the best way to help the handler. These dogs are trained to perform a variety of tasks in all types of situations.
How Dogs Become Seizure Dogs
Not every dog has the right personality, temperament, and skill set to become a seizure dog. Some organizations have breeding programs while others will work with rescue dogs or mixed breeds. Dogs are assessed as young puppies and enter an intense training program if they are deemed appropriate. Those with the right attributes begin the early phase of the program as young as eight weeks old. They first undergo basic socialization, obedience training, and house training. They are continually screened for temperament and health to make sure they are still right for the job.
Dogs that do well in the early phases move on to more advanced training. In general, a seizure dog is trained over a period of about two years before being teamed up with a handler. In most cases, the handler will also need to complete a training course. Training continues once the handler and dog are off on their own.
There is some uncertainty among experts as to a dog's natural ability to sense a seizure coming. Some believe this is a natural talent only possessed by certain dogs. Others feel that all dogs have the ability to sense a seizure before it starts, they just need to learn how to display this knowledge to the handler. This is why some dogs are trained to be seizure detection or alert dogs and others simply as seizure response dogs.
Life With a Seizure Dog
Seizure dogs form very close bonds with their handlers. The team is more than just dog-handler; it is a relationship of mutual companionship. However, seizure dogs don't have to be in work mode all the time. Once the harness comes off, they know that they are essentially "off the job." This is a time when they can act a little more like pets, playing and relaxing. Fortunately, most will still be ready to act appropriately if their handler has a seizure.